Identity of body remains mystery Woman found in 1996 had rare affliction, but police are stymied

September 20, 1998|By DEL QUENTIN WILBER | DEL QUENTIN WILBER,SUN STAFF

The police sketch shows a smiling face with perfect teeth, dark hair and big, bright eyes.

Somewhere, someone remembers the woman, known to investigators as B5011363, her state police case number. Despite the striking features and evidence of surgery for an affliction that affects fewer than 200,000 Americans, the woman has been unidentified for two years, since state workers discovered her skeletal remains near an Interstate 70 on-ramp in western Howard County.

"It's sad that somebody just threw her away like that," said Sgt. David A. Keller, the state police detective investigating the case.

In August 1996, two workers clearing drainage ditches in Lisbon found the woman's remains atop a concrete viaduct, 40 feet down a steep embankment covered with weeds. The woman probably was killed and thrown from the on-ramp months before the workers found her body, Keller said.

The woman was wearing blue jeans and a white T-shirt. Investigators determined she was 27 to 35 years old, between 5 feet 3 inches and 5 feet 5 inches tall, about 130 pounds, with a pierced right ear.

Police combed bushes, trees and discarded bottles for clues, but they found nothing to indicate the woman's identity.

"We only recovered 37 percent of her remains," Keller said. "There wasn't much to go on."

Those remains reveal tantalizing clues. The autopsy shows that not only did the woman have extensive and costly den- tal work,

she also had an operation to treat a rare, congenital brain condition called Arnold Chiari malformation.

Keller, assigned the case a month after the woman's remains were found, began studying the affliction in which parts of the brain protrude into the spinal canal, leading to many ills, from headaches to dizziness.

Experts told Keller that a neurosurgeon likely would remember performing the costly and risky procedure that involves removing a piece of skull to relieve pressure on the brain.

Contacting surgeons

Working from the Waterloo barracks, Keller contacted dozens of the 300 surgeons who regularly perform the surgery worldwide. None recalled the woman.

"I think somebody would remember her," said Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon Rafael Tamargo, a specialist in Chiari malformation. "I remember most of the patients I've had."

Though Tamargo is an expert in Chiari operations, the disease is so rare that he performs only five a year.

"There aren't that many missing people," Tamargo said. "And a missing person with this operation, well, that would be a minuscule number."

The FBI says there are 533 unidentified bodies nationwide.

Experts on finding missing persons say Keller has a tough road ahead -- despite the clues.

Family members of the woman might not care that she is missing or might not know. Sometimes, it is years after a person vanishes before a relative or friend files a report.

Complicating the search is that the body was dumped along an interstate highway that leads westward across the country, meaning she could have come from anywhere.

Missing persons cases are difficult enough when detectives can ask relatives or friends to confirm leads.

Keller has only a skeleton.

Roger J. Willard, a Pennsylvania private investigator who specializes in missing persons cases, says most of his work goes in the other direction -- from the living looking for the missing.

"Usually someone, a client or relative, is talking to me," Willard said. "I can go back, give them information, ask if it rings any bells. Here, you're working with a dead body."

Fruitless leads

pTC Keller "has no other information," Willard added. "Just physical evidence. That makes it a lot harder because, sometimes, you don't know what direction you're going in."

Since 1996, Keller has spent about 10 hours a week tracking leads, calling doctors and checking Teletype machines with names of missing women. He has searched the on-ramp. He has re-interviewed the people who found her. He has investigated useless tips from the jailhouse.

Keller purchased advertisements in a Maryland State Dental Association newsletter, asking dentists if they remembered the work that the autopsy revealed -- the removed molars, the filled cavities, the teeth fitted with crowns.

No response.

Keller suspects a trucker might be involved because they often park their trailers on the on-ramp. He speculates the woman might have been a prostitute, perhaps a drug addict. Since the autopsy could find no conclusive cause of death, the woman's death is listed as suspicious.

Returning to the scene

One recent afternoon, Keller gingerly stepped down the embankment from the on-ramp, making another visit to the concrete viaduct where the body was found. Hidden from the road, the concrete slab is nestled in thick weeds under the shade of overhanging tree branches.

Keller is investigating about 30 cases, ranging from thefts to assaults and stabbings. This is his only suspicious death, his only unidentified victim. Keller thinks he is looking not only for the woman's name, but also for a killer.

"She was just thrown over the embankment and the guy made a clean getaway," Keller said. "She is somebody's daughter, mother. We're going to find out who she is. It's just going to take a little longer to find out."

Pub Date: 9/20/98

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